erik lundegaard

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The Searchers (1956)

John Ford's highly-acclaimed film The Searchers suffers from the same problem as Clint Eastwood's Academy-Award winning Unforgiven: Both take steps towards undermining the hero myth, yet both star the pre-eminent cinematic heroes of their day in performances only slightly varied from how the public is used to seeing them.

Written by:
Frank S. Nugent

Directed by:
John Ford

Starring:
John Wayne
Jeffrey Hunter
Vera Miles
Ward Bond
Natalie Wood

Quote:
"We'll find 'em. As sure as the turning of the earth."

Here it's John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Johnny Reb who shows up at his brother's Texas ranch three years after the end of the Civil War, hands out gifts to the kids, exchanges meaningful glances with his brother's wife, and fills the cabin with his massive presence. A stubborn, unrelenting man, he refuses to be deputized by Reverend — and Captain — Clayton (Ward Bond) , drawling, as only Wayne can drawl, "I figure a man's only worth one oath at a time. I took mine to the Confederate States of America."

Clayton's out looking for "Commanch," in the language of the film, and Ethan, undeputized, agrees to help; but it's merely a Commanche ruse and when they return the Edwards' cabin is in flames, brother and wife and son are dead, and the two girls kidnapped. Thus begins a five-year search for Lucy and Debbie Edwards. Along the way, Ethan becomes older, more stubborn, more maniacal. He finds Lucy dead, and, one assumes, raped. As the search continues — Ethan is accompanied by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a quarter-Cherokee youth who had been raised by the Edwards family — one wonders over Ethan's motivation. Is he intent on saving Debbie, or, because she's been sullied by Indians, killing her?

In his documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Scorsese claims that Wayne's character is the most frightening in the film, which I dispute (Scar is). More important, Ethan Edwards is still the quintessential man here. Who's his competition? Captain Clayton? He's a big, boisterous presence until Ethan comes along; then, one senses, and he senses, he's no longer bull elephant. Besides, his plans of attack are always wrong while Ethan's are always right. Even army officers mistake Ethan for Clayton. Titles aside, we know who the real commander is.

Anyone else? Ethan's brother? Cuckolded in spirit if not in fact. He can't protect his family either. Martin Pawley? A floppy-haired, hysterical youth who, in love, is more acted upon than acting. Mose Harper is crazy. Lars Jorgensen is a stock Scandanavian, by yiminey. His son, Brad, Lucy's beau, is mere impotent rage. No, it's not even close. Ethan is always one step ahead of everyone else. He's such a commanding presence, and Wayne is such a star, that one forgets it's Martin Pawley who winds up saving Debbie and killing Scar. Ethan gets the rewards: Scar's scalp, and the climactic scene where, after chasing down Debbie, he lifts her high in the air (as he did at the beginning of the movie when he mistook her for Lucy), and then cradles her in his arms and takes her home. We know who the real hero is.

The film would've been subversive on the level Scorsese claims if Ethan had actually killed Debbie, or if Ethan's agony over miscegenation were not mirrored within the storyline. At one point, Ethan and Martin look over several white women recently rescued by the U.S. military from Indian captivity. It's a lurid, insane group, and the military captain shakes his head. "It's hard to believe they're white," he says. "They ain't white," Ethan responds. "Anymore." The film agrees.

The Searchers is still very good, and complex enough to argue about for years. Plus, the location shots (in Cinemascope and Vistavision!) from Monument Valley are exquisite. One wonders why they even bothered to film in the studio.

—November 29, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard